One of the first places I turned when I received Bart Ehrman’s newest tome, Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics, was his section on the Gospel of Peter. I tend to gravitate toward those areas I feel most knowledgeable. What I found was a mixture of well-reasoned exegesis and some questionable selection, presentation, and evaluation of the available evidence. I hope this doesn’t sound overly harsh, but I think Ehrman unnecessarily overstates his case. As this series of posts unfolds, I hope my reasons for this conclusion become clear.
The main questions I want to consider are whether Justin Martyr knew the Gospel of Peter and, more specifically, whether he included it among the works he knew as the “memoirs of the apostles.” Ehrman answers both of these in the affirmative. I am not so confident, however.
The most important evidence from Justin for this issue is the much-disputed passage in Dialogue with Trypho 106:
…and that Jesus stood in the midst of his brothers, the apostles (who repented of their flight from him when he was crucified, after he rose from the dead, and after they were persuaded by him that, before his passion he had mentioned to them that he must suffer these things, and that they were announced beforehand by the prophets), and when living with them sang praises to God, as is made evident in the memoirs of the apostles. The words are the following: ‘I will declare your name to my brothers; in the midst of the assembly will I praise you. You that fear the Lord, praise him; all you, the seed of Jacob, glorify him. Let all the seed of Israel fear him. And when it is said that he changed the name of one of the apostles to Peter; and when it is written in his memoirs (καὶ γεγράφθαι ἐν τοῖς ἀπομνημονεύμασιν αὐτοῦ) that this so happened, as well as that he changed the names of other two brothers, the sons of Zebedee, to Boanerges, which means sons of thunder.
The whole section of Dial. 103-106 is Justin’s attempt to show how the events surrounding Jesus’ death fulfill what was spoken of in the Psalms (Ps 22 is one in particular). He seems to base much of his information about Jesus on what is written in the memoirs of the apostles, and we know from what he says elsewhere (1 Apol 66) that the “memoirs of the apostles” are what were more commonly known as “gospels.”
The biggest question in the underlined text concerns the meaning of “his memoirs.” Grammatically it is unclear who the antecedent of αὐτοῦ (“his”) is. The nearest antecedent is Peter, but Jesus is the subject of the verbs both before and after αὐτοῦ. Justin did not express himself clearly, so we’re left with two grammatical options: “Jesus’ memoirs” or “Peter’s memoirs.” To complicate matters further, there are two ways to understand the latter alternative.
This leaves us with three defensible positions concerning the meaning of “his memoirs”:
- It means “the memoirs of Jesus” (or more accurately, “the memoirs about Jesus”). This position has been advocated recently by Paul Foster. If this is Justin’s meaning, it would be the only such use, since nowhere else does Justin connect the memoirs explicitly to Jesus. Instead, they are associated with the apostles.
- It means “the memoirs of Peter,” and Justin is referring specifically to the Gospel of Peter. This is the position taken by Ehrman, although many before him have done likewise (Peter Pilhofer is perhaps the most noteworthy proponent in recent decades).
- It means “the memoirs of Peter,” and Justin is referring specifically to the Gospel of Mark. This has been advocated by Graham Stanton and others.
This should be enough to set the stage for the rest of the conversation. In my next post, I’ll outline Ehrman’s positive arguments for his position and his arguments against the other two options.